Laff 2017 Women Directors: Meet Julia Meltzer — “Dalya’s Other Country”

“Dalya’s Other Country”

Julia Meltzer is an award-winning filmmaker and the founder and director of Clockshop, an arts organization. She previously directed the feature film, “The Light in Her Eyes,” which broadcast on “Pov” in 2012 and toured with the Sundance Film Forward program. Meltzer’s work has been shown at the Whitney Biennial, Idfa, Toronto International Film Festival, and the International Film Festival Rotterdam. She is a recipient of grants from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and was a senior Fulbright fellow in Damascus, Syria from 2005 to 2006.

“Dalya’s Other Country” will premiere at the 2017 La Film Festival on June 17 and make its broadcast premiere on PBS’ “Pov” on June 26.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

Jm: “Dalya’s Other Country” is about Dalya and her mother Rudayna adjusting to life in Southern California after fleeing Aleppo, Syria when the war began there in 2012. The film follows Dalya through four years of high school where she is the only Muslim student attending an all-girls Catholic school.

Dalya moves through her teenage years, from 14 to 18 years of age, with increasing confidence. She finds herself to be a self-described Syrian-American feminist responding to growing anti-Muslim sentiment in the lead up to the 2016 presidential election.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

Jm: I lived in Syria in 2005 for a year, and then I returned there every year until just before the war started more than six years ago. My last film, “The Light In Her Eyes,” was about a Qur’an school for women and girls in Damascus, so I’ve spent quite a bit of time learning about and engaging with Syrian culture and Sunni Muslim women.

When my last film was broadcast on “Pov” in 2012, Aleppo was just entering the war. I spent time in Aleppo and loved it. It was devastating to think about what might happen to the city and its inhabitants. I wanted to find a family from Aleppo who had recently come to Los Angeles escaping the war.

Mustafa Zeno, the co-producer of “Dalya’s Other Country,” worked on my last film doing outreach and distribution. I realized that his mother and sister had recently come from there and that the story I was searching for was right underneath my nose.

W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?

Jm: I want people to absorb the perspective of a young Syrian Muslim woman and how she sees the world during these complicated times. Dalya is an incredibly open-minded and adaptable person — if only we could all be like her!

What I hope people see is that most young people take in the world around them and have an easy time adjusting to different beliefs, values, and cultures if they are surrounded by love. I hope people can take that lesson in.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

Jm: My daughter Amina was born in July 2012 and I started shooting “Dalya’s Other Country” before she turned one. The biggest challenge for me was to adjust to being a mother and a filmmaker: juggling child-care schedules, my desire to be with her and be a present person, and also to make another film.

Amina came with me on several shoots and I slowly figured out how to integrate all of these responsibilities together. It helped that my partner is a supportive and present father who shared the child-care with me, and that we had an amazing babysitter too.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

Jm: I decided very early on that I would make this film in a very small and manageable way. I drew on my community of filmmaking friends who are incredibly talented and skilled.

Anne Etheridge, my Dp, agreed to work for a lower rate throughout. Catherine Hollander, my editor, also lowered her rate and committed to the project over four years. Iryna Kucherenko, my main sound person, did the same. I’m grateful to all of these talented women who stuck with me.

I raised some money from grants at the beginning of production and then I put in my own money to carry the film through rough cut. Towards the end of post-production I got several other grants that took me almost to delivery. At the very end I learned that “Pov” was going to take the film and I breathed a huge sigh of relief. The licensing fee covered all the money that I put in and a little more.

W&H: What does it mean for you to have your film play at the Laff?

Jm: As a former Film Independent Doc Lab fellow and an La-native, it means so much to me. Where do I start? My whole crew is here, my family is here, Dalya’s family is here. To have a screening with everyone present is a dream.

Los Angeles is at the forefront of the pro-immigrant movement in our country. There is simply no better place for my film to have its world premiere.

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

Jm: Way back in 1992 I was just starting out as a filmmaker, I met a documentarian, Richard Cohen. He said to me, “Don’t choose this life. It’s a terrible career.” In some ways that was both the best and the worst advice together.

I remember thinking that he was just a depressed guy who couldn’t finish his film. However, looking back, I do see some wisdom in that advice — he was passing on part of his experience and it served as both a warning and threat. I knew that if I moved forward and pursued filmmaking, I better make sure that I really loved it or else!

W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?

Jm: My advice to other female directors is to gather your core people around you. Work for your filmmaker friends and barter your skills and services. Develop a crew who you can count on by being that person too. It’s a tough world out there and you will need these people to survive and get that film made!

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

Jm: There are so many. It’s hard to choose only one. “Vagabond” by Agnés Varda has been on my mind. It is such a perfectly paced film and Sandrine Bonnaire is unrelenting and uncompromising as the main character. I love the truth of Mona’s life as a drifter and a traveler.

There are so few films about women traveling by themselves and on their own terms, so this film is a true gem. As a viewer you want Mona to be friendly, fake it a little bit, just so she can be treated better and get by.

But she is who she is throughout the whole film — she is selfish and a survivor. It’s a brutal beginning and end, though. I admire Varda for so many reasons but also for making a film that is simple, beautiful, honest, and also deeply complex.

W&H: There have been significant conversations over the last couple of years about increasing the amount of opportunities for women directors yet the numbers have not increased. Are you optimistic about the possibilities for change? Share any thoughts you might have on this topic.

Jm: I’m going to quote James Baldwin because I often think of this quote when I’m feeling pessimistic and needing to turn things around. He said, “I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive. To be a pessimist means that you have agreed that human life is an academic matter, so I’m forced to be an optimist. I’m forced to believe that we can survive whatever we must survive.”

Laff 2017 Women Directors: Meet Julia Meltzer — “Dalya’s Other Country” was originally published in Women and Hollywood on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
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